Death toll in Turkish-Syrian quakes surpasses grim benchmark

The devastating tremors have killed at least 15,000 people in both nations

The death toll continues to rise after the powerful earthquakes that shook Türkiye and Syria on Monday. AFAD, Türkiye’s disaster management agency, put the number of fatalities in the county at 12,391 in an update on Thursday.

The Syrian Health Ministry recorded 1,262 deaths, as of Wednesday. The White Helmets, a Western-funded group operating in parts of Syria that are not controlled by Damascus, has put the figure at more than 1,900. Combined with the Turkish tally, the death toll has surpassed 15,500.

The series of powerful tremors in southern Türkiye and northern Syria flattened thousands of buildings and caused severe damage to infrastructure. Rescuers in both nations, including those sent by foreign nations to assist in the response, have been in a race against time to clear the rubble, in search of survivors. Cold weather adds urgency to their work, making the need to provide shelter to survivors a matter of life and death.

The World Health Organization has estimated that in the long run, the disaster may impact as many as 23 million people, five million of whom are already in a vulnerable state. Syria is already suffering from a decade-long armed conflict, which has degraded its healthcare system and put some parts of the country under self-rule.

El-Mostafa Benlamlih, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, called the situation "a crisis on top of a crisis" during a press conference on Wednesday. Stockpiles of food and medicine that aid groups had pre-positioned in Syria are being rapidly depleted, he warned.

"Whatever we can do, we have to do it together, driven by humanitarian needs. We just hope that the political considerations will get out of the way and let us do our job," he said.

Governments and international aid organizations have renewed pressure on the US to lift sanctions on Syria, to facilitate relief efforts in the country. Aside from economic restrictions, Washington has for years been supporting various militant groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian government.

While the US allows exceptions for humanitarian assistance, aid groups say that in practice they face long delays before shipments are approved by US officials enforcing the sanctions regime.